A sunburnt and badly wounded David Wenham, looking haggard and sounding hoarse but radiating as much gravitas as ever, slogs across outback Australia as a gold thief in The Furnace, accompanied by a young Afghan cameleer (Ahmed Malek) with whom his character develops an unlikely friendship. Or perhaps “business associate” is a better way of putting it. On the ground propped up against a log of wood, grumbling about how he must find somewhere to rest “before the dingoes get me”, Mal (Wenham) soon reveals he has in his possession two 400oz crown-marked gold bars: a veritable mother lode of riches.
But Mal doesn’t walk so good, being potentially on death’s door and all, so he needs the help of Hanif, the cameleer, to reach the titular location. There they can indulge in a kind of proto money-laundering operation; the bars inscribed with the crown can be melted down and transformed into untraceable gold.
The pair have to get there first, though, which proves easier said than done – the task of navigating the land and its obstacles laying the foundation for a kind of roadless road movie, set in Western Australia circa 1897 and commandingly written and directed by Roderick MacKay. The first-time feature filmmaker captures an intriguing stillness derived heavily from the land, which is vast and unforgiving, of course; it wouldn’t be an Australian western (the genre is also known as the “meat pie western”) if it wasn’t.
MacKay avoids spectacle and dispensable action, reserving his ammunition for occasional confrontations – involving, shall we say, disagreements between lawmen and vagabonds who desire that gold. In addition to the partnership forged between Mal and Hanif, which gives the film a cross-cultural dynamic, there is a racially diverse set of supporting characters including Chinese immigrants, Islamic, Sikh and Hindu cameleers, and the Indigenous Australian community. Hanif is a good friend of Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr, who was stunning in The Nightingale) and has a close bond with the local Yamatji Badimia people, able to communicate with them in Badimaya dialect.
Any film involving characters roughing it across brutally tough terrain in pursuit of gold exists in the shadow of John Huston’s great film about prospecting and paranoia, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which Humphrey Bogart sweltered in the sun and paid a heavy price for his greed. Great meat pie westerns – among them Sweet Country, Inn of the Damned, The Nightingale and The Proposition – are usually about revenge and “hard justice” rather than wealth and belongings, although the 1946 whip-crackin’ adventure The Overlanders is a notable exception, about a drover determined to keep his cattle.
In that classic film the great Chips Rafferty was guaranteed to survive and triumph – because he was principled, he was decent, he embodied old time values, he was just bloody fair dinkum. Wenham, gawd love ‘im, has an oeuvre not defined by characters with such nobility (unless one considers Johnny “Who’s paying for my bus fare?” Spitieri an upstanding member of society). And thus his path is not guaranteed.
Hanif, played more broadly and very impressively by Malek, is a different kettle of fish: the significantly younger moral centre of the film, who is empathetic and intelligent albeit still establishing his outback smarts. During one conversation he drops the phrase “there but for the grace of God,” which triggers a stern rebuke from the somewhat differently wired Mal: “There’s no grace or God out here, son,” he says. “There’s just the land and all its spoils.”
The dangerous cretins walking that land allow MacKay to confront dark aspects of the Australian psyche, spotlighting various kinds of racism and posing interesting questions about national identity. Who are Australians? What values do we stand for? How do we treat minority communities?
The Furnace, however, never feels overtly polemical or even political; these questions feel like organic extensions of the drama. Confronting the past was also a key part of Sweet Country and The Nightingale – two films that are more pointed politically and cinematically richer than MacKay’s. The director has spoken repeatedly about how Australia “has only recently begun to willingly peer back into its past, warts and all, to better understand how it has arrived at the present”.
The western is not just an enduring genre but tied to the very narrative foundations of cinema, with highly significant early works such as The Great Train Robbery arriving in 1903 and the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang – an Australian production – landing three years later. The emerging category of historically revisionist meat pie westerns, to which The Furnace belongs, suggests that the land, with all its spoils, accommodates many more histories to revisit and many more stories to tell. We’ll have to wait and see how many David Wenham stars in before the dingoes get him.
• The Furnace is showing in Australian cinemas from 10 December